How to Handle Internal Conflict Within Your Church

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When conflict arises in a church, a tired or stressed pastor may not respond well. Ed Stetzer, then executive director of LifeWay Research, voiced that fact after reviewing LifeWay's 2015 online study that showed 25 percent of pastors who left their positions did so because of conflict. Although a "change in calling" was the top reason pastors gave for leaving their congregations prematurely, LifeWay found that conflict was the second.

For the study, LifeWay surveyed 734 former senior pastors from the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, Church of the Nazarene and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The respondents had all left the pastorate before retirement age. The research revealed that about 56 percent of the pastors experienced conflicts from changes they proposed in the church, while 54 percent faced personal attacks.

From offended members to full-blown disagreements concerning the direction of the church, most pastors are not prepared in Bible college or seminary to deal with people. Nearly 48 percent of pastors in the study say they were not equipped to handle the people side of ministry.

In that light, Ministry Today spoke with three pastors from different church backgrounds who have dealt with conflict in their congregations. Aaron Campbell of Rising Sun Outreach Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee, and president of the Memphis chapter of the Pentecostal Charismatic Churches of North America; Bubba Justice of Inverness Vineyard Church in Birmingham, Alabama; and Scott Hagan of Real Life Sacramento in Sacramento, California, shared their wisdom and experience in handling conflict and its causes.

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Aaron Campbell
Rising Sun Outreach Ministries
Memphis, Tennessee

Q What type of conflict is common in churches today?

A "Churches generally agreed on what was considered moral or indecent for Christians (in the past, but) now we live in a society where members within the church disagree on what's considered right and what's considered wrong. For instance, the great majority of Christians years ago believed that homosexuality was biblically wrong. Now within the same church setting, many believe there's nothing wrong with same-sex marriage. This definitely presents conflict. Many in the church have strayed from fundamental biblical teaching, while others endorse the Bible as our guide to Christian living. Many in the church have moved toward a more worldly view concerning moral issues. As a result, great conflict has developed within the church."

Q How can a leader prevent or de-escalate a conflict that is starting?

A "The only way a leader can prevent this type of conflict from escalating within the church is to make sure the church understands his position clearly on moral issues, especially in a setting where there is much disagreement."

Q What pitfalls should pastors be aware of when handling conflicts with staff or members?

A "The pastor should be aware of certain factions within the church that disagree with his stance on moral issues and use wisdom to correct the situation before it gets out of hand. The greatest pitfall would be other members gaining support against his teaching that could lead to a split in the church."

Q When should a pastor delegate addressing a conflict?

A "Delegation should start at the onset when it is discovered that there are factions within the church causing problems concerning the issue."

Q What legal issues might pastors and leaders run into when addressing a church conflict?

A "If the church does not have it spelled out in their by-laws what the church believes concerning moral issues such as same-sex marriage, this could present some legal problems."

SCOTT HAGAN
Real Life Sacramento
Sacramento, California

Q What type of conflict is common in churches today?

A "I have a deeply held belief that a person's relational maturity (intelligence) isn't based on their inability to offend but on their inability to be offended. I also believe that most conflict happens when an overreaction collides with an underreaction. The most common types of conflict arise over jealousies. People feel they can do a better job than someone else they perceive was promoted over them. And I'm not talking about staff serving in paid positions but volunteers in roles that require some type of empowerment. When a person harbors resentment over another person's success, they will either become aloof or disloyal or seek to sabotage that person's success. If that person's effort or competency is holding back the team, then feelings of hurt arise when they quietly or loudly want them replaced.

"Someone feels disrespected by a terse and short answer or left out because they weren't invited. Everything that affects the workplace affects the local church. In my opinion, most conflict of any size starts small and involves some kind of offense."

Q How can a leader prevent or de-escalate a conflict that is starting?

A "It's imperative a pastor keeps his or her cool, no raising of the voice or threats. I've never heard something wise spoken harshly. A gentle answer is the always the right answer. I also move quickly because I recognize the devastating consequences of procrastination. Procrastination doubles the price of everything in life. That doesn't mean I don't deliberate, but I tell those waiting on me for leadership that I'm 'reflecting' on the situation so I can get a clear understanding of reality."

Q What pitfalls should pastors be aware of when handling conflicts with staff or members?

A "When you hide some of the facts or diminish the role a person is playing in the conflict because of family loyalties or long-standing friendship loyalties, chaos is coming. There must be structural mechanisms in place to promote the integrity of the organization as a whole so that fairness and truth remains strong. When it comes to money or family members, the ease by which a pastor can lose his or her discernment soars. I'm not opposed to family serving in ministry—I have several family members on staff—but I'm crystal clear on the pitfalls and have constructed an honest administrative system that's above reproach."

Q When should a pastor delegate addressing a conflict?

A "As far as congregationally, we teach our flock the basics of reconciliation, but we also want them to know they're safe, and if they're not getting to the root of something and it's hindering their ability to freely worship at church, our pastors and elders will step into the situation. I want them to grow and be biblically capable of reconciling and de-escalating themselves, but they have at their disposal wise and seasoned leaders who are available to them on short notice."

Q What legal issues might pastors and leaders run into when addressing a church conflict?

A "We don't believe it's scriptural to sue a fellow brother or sister, according to 1 Corinthians 6:5-7.
We have an arbitration process in place for members that's nonbinding but still valid. The greatest issues involve cash investments in which money was lost and the injured party felt the church had someone endorsed them because they perceived them as a congregational leader. Those are very difficult to deal with."

BUBBA JUSTICE
Vineyard Church
Birmingham, Alabama

Q What type of conflict is common in churches today?

A "The most common conflict is relational conflict from perceived slights to lack of inclusion, such as how children or youth have been treated to someone feeling like he's been ignored. The pastor who mentored me taught me, 'God will give you grace to deal with those who harm you, but God will not give you grace for someone else's offense.'"

Q How can a leader prevent or de-escalate a conflict that is starting?

A "My partner in ministry and worship leader, Steve Cole, has been with me for 23 years. He and I have never had a serious long-term conflict. He attributes that to the fact that we pray together almost every day of the work week for an hour."

Q What pitfalls should pastors be aware of when handling conflicts with staff or members?

A "I believe pastors should be aware of the multiple types of relationships that we have with both staff and members. As a pastor, my job is to nurture, encourage and build up. When dealing with staff members, sometimes I have to address areas that wound a person. When addressing conflicts with members, pastors should be aware of their authority. People honor my spiritual position, so my words have weight. I have to be much more gentle than if I were resolving conflict in a business context."

Q When should a pastor delegate addressing a conflict?

A "I let the issue be addressed at the lowest level of leadership. I learned this from Todd Hunter, former national director of Vineyard USA after John Wimber's death. By letting a lower-level leader deal with the issue first, there's an ability to appeal any decision to the next level of leadership. Apostles appointed deacons to deal with conflict in Jerusalem. If the conflict is doctrinal in nature or could lead to a church split, the pastor needs to be fully engaged in resolving the conflict."

Q What legal issues might pastors and leaders run into when addressing a church conflict?

A "Again, the answer to this question depends on the nature of the conflict. If a law has been broken and the authorities have been called in, then I believe the church should find the best attorney who also submits his or her practice to kingdom principles. If no law been broken, then I believe the church should seek mediation."

BILL SCHEER
Guts Church
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Q What type of conflict is common in churches today?

A "Much of the conflict that occurs in the church today is caused by assumed, unmet expectations. As far as conflict goes, I believe the world operates by the principle of respect, but the kingdom is different. The kingdom of God operates by honor. Respect is earned, but honor is given. You give honor because you are honorable. It is not based on how others treat you. If we approach how we treat each other with honor, in whatever situation, it takes a lot of the bite out of any conflict."

Q How can a leader prevent or de-escalate a conflict that is starting?

A "I try to live my life being on time—no excuses, no explanations—and staying alert. With this in mind, explanations can cause conflicts to deepen because everybody has a side, everybody has an opinion. The Bible is very clear: 'Where there are many words, transgression surely follows' (Prov. 10:19). The best way to handle conflict is to resolve it quickly, professionally and lovingly."

Q What pitfalls should pastors be aware of when handling conflicts with staff or members?

A "My wife, Sandy, and I have a personal agenda to give ministry away. Ministry boils down to three things: correction, reproof and edification. People need to be developed to delegate that through the leadership of the church."

Q When should a pastor delegate addressing a conflict?

A "I personally believe that most, if not all, conflicts we face with church members can be prevented if we are intentional to communicate on the front end. It eliminates the potential for conflict later. At Guts Church, we try to approach things in the simplest form and let people know how we handle situations, so that when that situation arises, the response isn't a surprise to anyone."  


Leilani Haywood is the online editor of SpiritLed Woman, a Charisma Media magazine, and the author of Ten Keys to Raising Kids That Love God. Follow her on Twitter (@leilanihaywood).

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